Have you ever asked yourself where do sailors go when they retire from the sea? What do they do? Let me tell you a story…
A little while ago, while on our way to the Basque Country, the weather decided the ship had to stop in Brittany. An unplanned quick pitstop to Douarnenez came into the schedule then: less than 24 hours for an almost full crew change, laundry, and a pint (or two) of cider at the bar to wash away the tiredness of three low pressures which challenged the crew since the Netherlands. And provisioning too!
We were more than short in time so I had to be effective, but I knew exactly who to call. I dial a number on my phone as we tack and approach land getting some connection. On the screen, I read “Remi and Lis”. A smile drew on my face. A waterfall of memories visits my mind while I wait for the call to be answered…
Throwback to 2016. It is Christmas time in La Palma, Canary Islands. I’m busy finding a boat to hitchhike to reach South America when through a fortunate series of encounters and “coincidences” I find myself standing for the first time, dropped jaw and sparkling eyes, in front of the engineless brigantine Tres Hombres, a sailing cargo ship bound to the Caribbeans. I get invited on deck, where I meet the crew: Captain Andreas, Mate Shimra, Deckie Hilde, Cook Giuseppe… Remi, first mate and Lis, an American trainee, amongst others. We end up spending a few days together on the island, and celebrate Christmas dinner on the ship. I peeled the potatoes in the galley for that meal, thinking I would have loved to set sails with them the next day. I knew it would not happen, and even the future possibility of it felt very, very far away.
Throwback to 2018. It is September, I’m in South France taking a break from a season of the refit of Tres Hombres in the shipyard in Den Helder, where I joined as a volunteer and eventually got a job as a cook. One night, I receive a message. It is from Remi, the Captain of the upcoming winter trip. I have not seen the guy in more than 2 years. He proposes me join the voyage as ship cook, “if I’m up for the challenge”. My hands are shaking while I read and reread the message. I’ve never cooked on a seagoing ship before, put aside those peeled potatoes, in the harbour. But I CAN’T say no, even if I’m scared as F. I say to myself “Careful for what you ask the Universe, dammit! You might well get it!”. I say yes. Reading the crew list for the voyage I see Lis's name appearing beside the word deckhand. We leave a few weeks later for a transatlantic trip of 9 months together. 8 of us who leave the Netherlands in October will be still on board by July when we sail into Amsterdam. This will be the first full Atlantic voyage of Remi as a Captain. He started as a trainee in 2015. And the third in a row for Lis, who will be replacing our Bosun from Colombia onwards.
Throwback to 2019. It is summer again, almost a year after that message. We are sailing the good old Black Lady homebound from an epic, very long trip around the Atlantic. I sit with Remi and Lis, who are a couple now, in the chart house. We talk about their plans for when we’ll be back. They confess they nurture the dream to buy a piece of land, build a yurt and grow vegetables. We make jokes about them becoming our fresh goods suppliers one day. We laugh. It seems so exotic and too surreal to me to imagine my Captain and my Bosun, so very skilled at sea in anything they do, so very in love with their jobs and the ship, so very committed to the mission and the ethos of the company, to be farmers.
“Hey Giulia!”. Lis’ voice answers back at the other end of the line, bringing me back to the present. “Ciao Lis! Surprise surprise, we’re sailing into Douarnenez, ETA roughly 48h. I keep it short: the day has come my dear. Do you wanna be our fresh goods suppliers guys?”. We Laugh.
A few days after the call, we are finally at anchor in the Bay of Douarnenez. I’m excited, like a little girl on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa, while I wait for my friends, my former crew and our suppliers, to come.
And then, here they are. I see them approaching the ship on board the dinghy. This is a familiar vision, how many times during those 9 months I’ve seen them on the dinghy coming back to the ship? But this time is different. They carry a cargo of organically grown vegetables of the highest quality. All fruit of their hard work, coming from a piece of land one hour drive.
We welcome them and their garden babies on board with great excitement. One crate after the other finds its place on the deck. Delivery done. A look around and I see a real bounty on the ship. What a joy for all sailors on board! The bright colours and intense smells of summer suddenly hit our senses: orange and ruby cherry tomatoes, fresh green herbs, rainbow chards, mauve carrots, purple beans, pink charlottes, beautiful curvy courgettes, flamboyant curly kale, cucumbers, eggs… and more, you name it!
I jump into their arms. You made it! You, with the Earth, and the Sun, and the Rain, made this all! I look at them with admiration. They also look around, the light emanating out of their eyes burst with joy, and a pinch of pride, but they are too humble to show it or mention their Satisfaction. They look older, wiser, and healthier than the last time I hugged them on the deck of the ship, back in Amsterdam in July 2019, at the time of a very emotional farewell after an incredible adventure shared, a long journey through the Oceans and the complexity of Human interactions.
They help me do the more hectic provisioning missions that day and when they leave in the afternoon, to go back to the quietness of their farm, I know that even if nostalgia might have visited their heart they will sleep with no regrets in it, and even if their love for the ship is still very tangible, they found a new way to serve Her which makes them happier and remains important: feeding their fellow sailors while enjoying a low-impact life in harmony with Nature.
And so I finally see the thread. The connection is unbroken. The truthful continuum of an engineless cargo sailor who turns into an organic farmer. The farmer and the sailor share so much more than what we could imagine or expect at first glance. They are both life choices, not professional careers. They ain’t 9 to 5, Mon-Fri jobs. They both work round the clock during certain seasons and find some rest only when the harvest is done and the ship is back home, just to start all over again knowing very well any year, any voyage will ever be the same. They both answer primarily to the Elements, the Weather is their Master, more than any market or human law. This makes them very humble. They both know that no matter how good they work, how hard they try, they are not in control. They both have deep marks of their work on their hands. The sun carves their skin, the wind sands them. And their backs are broken. They’ll be both proud of every little scar, wrinkle and sign you’ll find on their body.
There is Peace to be found in the becalmed Big Blue as much as there is in the songs of the birds at dusk in the trees. There are challenges to face at Sea as much as there are while gardening a piece of Land. There is Joy, as much as there is Fear and Braveness. Because when you live in a world ruled by profit, capitalism, and exploitation, to choose the Wild is an act of resistance and Resilience of the most powerful. So it makes perfect sense that once a sailor is ready to retire, goes to find a remote patch of land, build a simple home, and start to sow seeds in it. Bless them!